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New England Cottontail Rabbit Repopulation Project

The rare New England cottontail, a species of native rabbit once abundant throughout the New England region, is now a threatened species and is getting much-needed help. Biologists from the New England Cottontail Captive Breeding Working Group (NECCBWG) have teamed up to restore populations by breeding these rabbits in captivity and releasing them into their natural habitats. This program has made promising progress toward boosting cottontail numbers while the partners also work to protect and restore habitat throughout the range of the species

Why is the New England Cottontail Rabbit Endangered?

In the 1930s, the non-native Eastern cottontail was introduced from Missouri primarily to benefit hunters when the native cottontail populations began to decline. While the non-native Eastern cottontail population is widespread and abundant, the native New England cottontail has declined perilously since that time. Currently, it’s believed that the species is extirpated from Vermont, with sparse populations throughout the rest of New England. Recent population surveys conducted by staff wildlife biologists from RIDEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, and USFWS so far have documented only two occurrences of a New England cottontail in Rhode Island.

Why is the New England Cottontail Rabbit Endangered?

In the 1930s, the non-native Eastern cottontail was introduced from Missouri primarily to benefit hunters when the native cottontail populations began to decline. While the non-native Eastern cottontail population is widespread and abundant, the native New England cottontail has declined perilously since that time. Currently, it’s believed that the species is extirpated from Vermont, with sparse populations throughout the rest of New England. Recent population surveys conducted by staff wildlife biologists from RIDEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, and USFWS so far have documented only two occurrences of a New England cottontail in Rhode Island.

New England Cottontail Rabbit: Why Does it Matter?

This is the only species of cottontail rabbit that is native to New England. They play a beneficial role in seed dispersal to help create healthy forests, and they’re an important food source for many predators throughout New England.

The Cooperative Conservation Project – A Closer Look

Results to Date

Roger Williams Park Zoo scientists together with regional partners formed the Captive Breeding Working Group as one potential solution for saving the New England cottontail. The NECCBWG membership continues to inform and guide the process of transition from the breeding phase through re-population efforts.

By 2010, RWPZ had dedicated space, staff, and veterinary care for the breeding program. It continues to provide expertise to sustain a supply of healthy captive-born rabbits for the reintroduction and population augmentation initiative. Partners in the northeast include Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York continue to provide wild adult cottontails for the breeding program. These are “founder” rabbits that produce offspring for reintroduction efforts and population augmentation. The University of Rhode Island and the University of New Hampshire perform genetic testing to confirm they are indeed New England cottontails before they are added to the breeding program.

“To try to rebuild a species, we first needed to learn if we could keep healthy individuals in captivity,” said Lou Perrotti, Director of Conservation Programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “We’ve learned that we can. We’ve also learned that we can successfully breed wild animals in captivity and raise the young from birth through weaning. Now, we’re testing whether the captive-born babies can be released to a wild setting and survive the winter and produce self-sustaining and growing populations.”

In November 2011, the offspring, or kits, of the first founders were released at age three-to-four months at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in southern Rhode Island. They were placed in a one-acre habitat surrounded by predator-proof fencing to allow them to become acclimated to a natural environment without predation pressure. The offspring spent their first winter adjusting from living at the Zoo to living in the wild, learning to forage and fend for themselves in a predator-free environment. That year 11 rabbit kits were born in captivity.

In March of 2012, some of the rabbits were fitted with radio collars and released into the wild on Patience Island, in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Their activity and health were monitored to see if they survived and reproduced. Other captive-born rabbits were brought back to the Zoo and added to the breeding group. Additional groups of kits were released in July and September onto Patience Island. A small group also was sent to Great Bay, New Hampshire, to build new populations and augment declining populations in that state.

As of November 2012, more than half of the radio fitted rabbits were still alive, which meant they were successfully foraging and avoiding predators. The partners celebrated this as a successful result for a prey species. That year 28 kits were captive born.

During 2013 and 2014, the breeding and release program grew significantly, nearly doubling numbers achieved in each of the previous years, with young rabbits released in Rhode Island and New Hampshire to augment those populations. 2013 had 41 kits born in captivity, and 38 kits were captive-born the following year.

With the Rhode Island Foundation providing an initial $15,000, and continued federal funding through the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid Wildlife Restoration Program, administered by The Wildlife Management Institute, the breeding facilities were expanded in 2014.

In 2015, the team partnered with the Queens Zoo in New York as a second breeding facility, hoping that this larger capacity would result in a significantly higher birth rate each year. 2015 saw 22 captive-born rabbits and that number rose to 35 in 2016.

As of 2022, a total of 3,400 young rabbits have been introduced to the wild in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Long Term Recommendations & Goals

This collaborative project aims to help restore sustainable cottontail populations. “The wide-range effort to save this native animal depends on the expertise and collaboration of partners like those involved in this project,” says Anthony Tur, endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Thanks to the dedication of the Zoo staff and others, we are now prepared to expand the program to achieve meaningful conservation goals for the cottontail.”

The Working Group partners aim to expand and manage the early successional habitat needed for this species, working in some cases with private landowners. Then, the captive breeding program will continue with the Zoo, with a goal to significantly increase the number of captive-born rabbits produced each year.

Roger Williams Park Zoo’s New England Cottontail Honors

2013

New Hampshire Fish and Game Honor

2015

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Conservation Award

2019

AZA North American Conservation Award

2020

U.S. Fish & Wildlife named Lou Perrotti as a 2020 Recovery Champion

Questions? Contact Louis Perrotti, Director of Conservation Programs at Lperrotti@rwpzoo.org or call (401) 785-3510 ext. 335.

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